Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

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Leadership Marketing!!!

David Packard, Co-founder of Hewlett Packard famously said, “Marketing is too important to be left to the Marketing Department”.  He meant that in an organization, every individual – the CEO included, has to perform his/her bit in “marketing” the company’s products.  I am not sure if there is anybody else who has taken to this concept more keenly than Donald Trump, a CEO turned POTUS. How else could you explain this?? On the 28th Jan, Trump has a call with the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull as part of his global leadership outreach since he became the President. Post the call, the official White House Readout on the call went thus:

“President Donald J. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke by phone for twenty-five minutes today. Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally”.

A few days hence, media reports emerged on the call which said, “Donald Trump yelled at Australian PM during “worst ever” phone call about refugee swap deal – then HUNG UP”. For obvious reasons, this report created a furore all over with the rumblings being heard for few days over. In the meantime Trump at a Prayer Breakfast added,

Believe me, when you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having – don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it,”

Now, here’s the intrigue. Apparently we hear that while on the call with Turnbull, Trump was joined by the then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and senior advisor Steve Bannon. Only. So how did reports of his so called “yelling” and “hanging up” find their way to the media??? Surely the President’s office is not bugged by some media house! It’s clear that the media reports were a part of an orchestrated PR campaign to market the product called Trump. In this case it was clearly intended to send a message to his constituency which bought his message of “America First” during the campaign that he is tough and is now “Walking the Talk”.  Notwithstanding the tremors that the news of the call created, I am sure it did the job of enhancing Trump’s image among his supporters as a no nonsense leader. So it was not just important for Trump to talk tough on the refugee issue but to communicate to the world that he talked tough.

trump

Welcome to the age of “Leadership Marketing”!!!

Closer home too, we have parallels to this. Through Narendra Modi our Prime Minister. For example, when Heeraben, our PM’s mother visits him in Delhi and spends a few days at the official Prime Minister’s residence, we get to see pictures splashed in the newspapers of Narendra Modi with his mother. The source of this being the Prime Minister’s twitter handle itself where Modi posted pictures of him walking his mother in a wheel chair along with his tweet which said “My mother returns to Gujarat. Spent quality time with her after a long time & that too on her 1st visit to RCR”.  So to his many followers, the intended message is clear. Here’s a leader who is tender at heart with his mom while being blessed with a 56” chest in his own words to take on his adversaries.  In India more than spending time with wife and children, image of a leader taking care of his mother has a telling impact. Again it was not just enough for Modi to spend quality time with his mom but to inform the world that he did so!!!

America, arguably the global fountainhead of marketing has been in the forefront of adopting this technique with Trump now but even with Barack Obama before. Routinely we were fed with images of how the Obamas enjoyed quiet dinners at suburban restaurants on weekends. On Obama’s 55th birthday which was his last in Office, we saw plugs like “55 pictures of Obama discovering his inner child” and so on!!! In the case of Obama the positioning was not of a tough leader but of an affable and lovable man who cared for everybody.

In India, giving competition to our PM in Leadership Marketing is the Aam Aadmi Party Chief Arvind Kejriwal. He wears the positioning of Aam Aadmi on his sleeve. Literally. Even as a CM of a state he walks in chappals, wears loose fit clothes, tweets reviews of films he catches up on weekends,… to reinforce his positioning. The party also posts routinely on Facebook like this:

“Chief Minister of India’s Capital. No security, No VIP treatment. Truly Aam Aadmi,”  With the following picture:

ak1

Not surprising that the post got over 30,000 likes and 5,400 comments!!!

So, Leadership Marketing is no longer the exclusive domain of Americans.

In advocating this Leadership Marketing, I must say that the advent of Social media has made the job much easier. No need to depend on your PR agency to do the job. One could time it yourself.

On the flip side, the case of Vijay Mallya tweeting a picture of himself at a Super luxury hotel in Dubai and claiming to have a rocking time when his employees were hitting the streets for unpaid salary back home were bad optics and horrendous Leadership Marketing!!! Leadership Marketing is the new double edged sword in the arsenal for leaders to “position” themselves “right” in the battle for the minds and hearts. Double edged it is and hence they can’t leave it to the party’s publicity wing or an external agency but have to be on top of it themselves. Just as Packard advised.

As leaders engage in this marketing and optics, we the people need to develop the skill of separating wheat from the chaff and make our judgement objectively rather than fall for the optics or surround sound!!!

So the next time when you see a report quoting from an “inside source” of Trump banging the table during a meeting with Tim Cook for not making Apple phones in America or a clip of O.Paneer Selvam praying to a Jayalalitha’s picture tucked in his shirt pocket, you know why!!!

Somebody famously said, “The Future of Marketing is Leadership”. I am tempted to paraphrase in tune with today’s times as “The Future of Leadership is Marketing”. Amen.